Could the UN take over the world

Change the world without taking power

08 2005

John Holloway

Transcription of a video by O. Ressler,
Recorded in Vienna, Austria, 23 min., 2004


If you look at the experiences of the last century, of revolutionary governments in Russia, China, Cuba - although Cuba is a more complicated case - or of reformist governments that came to power through elections, then the picture emerges as a bitter disappointment, a terrible disillusionment. In no case has a left government been able to make the kind of changes that the people who fought for it wanted. In all cases the result is a reproduction of the balance of power, perhaps a change in the balance of power, but a reproduction of the balance of power that excludes people who reproduce material injustice and a society that is not self-determined. It always reproduces a society in which the people themselves cannot determine the development of society. You can analyze it historically: In Russia it happened for one reason or another, in China for one reason or another, in Albania, Cuba, Brazil etc. But at some point the point comes where it is no longer sufficient, in the sense of specific historical cases to speak and we have to generalize. The most obvious conclusion is that there is something inherently wrong with the idea of ​​social transformation with the help of the state. The failure of the state to change society has to do with the nature of the state itself, with the fact that the state is not simply a neutral institution, but a specific form of social relationship that arises with the development of capitalism. And that it is a form of social relationship based on the exclusion of people from power, based on the separation and fragmentation of people.

"Change the world without taking power" means what it says, namely that we have to change the world, that is clear. And that we have to do it in a way that doesn't think of the struggle for world change as a struggle focused on the state and power. It's important to develop our own structures, our own way of doing things. A central aspect of the argument is that it is important to distinguish between two concepts of power. That the concept of power contains an antagonism between our power to do things and our creative power on the one hand and the commanding power, the instrumental power of capital, on the other. In other words, the most obvious answer to the question of what power is is that power means our ability to do things. That power is always a social power simply because what one person does depends on what others do. It is perfectly clear that what we are doing here right now depends on the doing of hundreds or thousands of people who created the technology we work with, who created the terms we use, etc. Our power to do is always one social power, always a collective power, our doing is always part of a social flow of doing. In capitalism this flow is broken because the capitalist appropriates the actions of others. And since the doing of one person is the prerequisite for the doing of another, the appropriation of the doing by capital becomes the prerequisite for the ability to determine the actions of others. In this way the social power to act is broken into its opposite, into the power of the capitalist to determine the actions of others.
Capitalism is essentially the process of interrupting this social flow of doing, breaking the sociality of doing and breaking our power to do, and transforming it into power over, into something that is alien to us. We must therefore think of our struggle not as a power struggle, which would mean taking over their power, but as a struggle to build up our power of doing, which is inevitably a social power. And it is important to see two fundamentally different concepts of power in this struggle, each with its own logic. The logic of capital is a logic of domination, hierarchy and fragmentation. A logic that negates subjectivity, objectifies the subject. Our logic contradicts this, it is the logic of coming together, of rebuilding subjectivity, which capital denies. Subjectivity not as an individual but as a social subjectivity. These are two different ways of thinking and acting. For us, trying to think about social change means having confidence in the self-critical development of our own ways of acting and thinking. If we view the struggle for social change as a class struggle, then it is fundamental to see this struggle as asymmetrical. And as soon as we reproduce their forms and see our struggle as a reflection of their struggle, then we do nothing more than reproduce the power of capital in our own struggles.

The revolution I am thinking of must be thought of as a question rather than an answer. On the one hand it is clear that we need a fundamental change in society, on the other hand it is clear that the way in which we have tried to change society through the state in the last century has failed. Now all we have to do is try another way. We cannot just give up the idea of ​​revolution. In recent years, many people have come to the conclusion that because of the failure of state social change, revolution is impossible. But the opposite is the case, the revolution is more urgent than ever. But you have to think about how we can do it, we have to find other ways. Right now, that means the ability to ask the question and think about how to develop that question. But it is important that the revolution is a question rather than an answer. The path of the revolutionary process is itself to be understood as a question, in the course of which people are not given answers, but are drawn into a process of self-determination.
Beyond this very general answer, one comes to the details of an analysis of the actual battles that are taking place. Not by copying them, but by critically analyzing how certain movements attempted to develop autonomous forms of action, concepts of dignity, the abolition of the separation between politics and economy, the development of new forms of organization.
The uprising of the Zapatistas was of enormous importance to me, from 1994 and the whole experience of the last ten years. For two reasons: Partly because they rose up and rebelled at a time when there seemed to be no place for revolt in modern society. But also, and above all, because they suggested rethinking the whole conception of what rebellion, revolt and revolution mean. Part of this is precisely the question of proposing a different logic, as well as a different language, time, and spatiality that are not symmetrical to the language and time of capital and state. For example, after the initial uprising, one of the first important events was the "diálogo de San Andrés", the dialogue between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas in San Andrés, this city in Chiapas. Ordinarily one would think of it as a dialogue, a negotiation as a symmetrical process between two sides. One of the most important things is that the Zapatistas made it clear from the start that firstly, they will not negotiate and, secondly, that it is not a symmetrical process. They have made this clear through their clothing, by insisting on wearing their traditional clothing and, on at least one occasion, on using their own language rather than bowing to the use of Spanish. And one of the interesting points that came up was, for example, the question of time. At a point where the two sides, the government and the Zapatistas, had reached a provisional agreement, the Zapatistas said they would now discuss this with their people. The government, however, demanded a decision within two days. The Zapatistas, however, insisted that they had a different time and discussion process. When the government official said they had the same Japanese wristwatch, the Zapatista representative responded by pointing out that for them that was not the meaning of "time", for them "time" was something else. And they took two months to reply.
This expresses the insight that has existed from the beginning that rebellion means trust in your own structures, your sense of time and space. And this notion of "time", for example, is very closely related to the question of democratic structures, the whole question of the insistence that decisions must be made through a process of communal discussion. Because if you insist on it, it takes a lot of time, just a different time concept. The asymmetry, this lack of symmetry between the logic of domination and the logic of revolt has been absolutely central to the Zapatista movement from the start. And that becomes clear again and again in their communiqués, in their use of stories, jokes and poems. And all these things, which at first glance seem like mere decoration, which are only secondary to the revolt, turn out to be central to the revolt itself, that they suggest and insist on another form of understanding the world and of relationships between people . While the traditional notion of revolution relied heavily on a military metaphor, the idea that it was about the clash of two armies. And that in order to defeat the enemy, the enemy's methods must be accepted. It is very important that the Zapatistas broke with it and refused to do so. To rebel, you have to develop a language for the things you do that the state just doesn't understand. And they have consistently done that over and over again over the past ten years.
Very often we think of capitalism, the problem of revolution, as "How do you destroy capitalism?" This has to be broken because when you think about how to destroy capitalism, you quickly end up realizing that it is impossible. Because by doing this one imagines capitalism as the huge monster with armies, educational systems, media control and material resources etc. that exist for itself. And on the other side we stand, lost, and how can we destroy this monster? We have to say goodbye to this metaphor of destruction and think differently about it.
Capitalism doesn't exist because we created it in the 19th or 18th century or whatever. Capitalism exists today only because we are recreating it over and over again today. If we don't get it tomorrow, it won't exist. He seems to have eternal life, but that's not true. Indeed, from one day to the next, capital depends on us. If we all stay in bed tomorrow, capitalism will cease to exist. If we start thinking of capitalism the way we could stop "making" it, if we think of the revolution the way we could stop "making" it, then that doesn't mean that we solved the problem. It doesn't mean that capitalism will go away tomorrow. If we think of the revolution like this, "How could we stop making capitalism?", The image of capitalism as an overpowering adversarial monster dissolves. And we can begin to open up possibilities, new hope and new ways of thinking about revolution and changing our society.


published in: "Alternative Economies, Alternative Societies", Kurswechsel 1/2005
For the texts published in this volume, the translations of the original English transcripts were made by Waltraud Heinz, Werner Raza, Oliver Ressler, Elisabeth Springler and Beat Weber.